Category Archives: Starting Homeschooling

Classical Education

Recently, I was asked to describe how I approach Classical Education, and, in particular, how CIRCE fits into that approach.  Well, the question was different, but that was the heart of the question.  So I thought I’d share my response below:

Woah, big question.  It’s kind of like asking, “How do you parent?”.  It’s not a nice tidy thing that I follow in a lock step manner and it’s always changing.  But I’ll give it a go.  :)

How do I use CIRCE as my path?  Well, firstly, it is and it isn’t a path.  CIRCE, in one sense, isn’t a path but rather inspiration from excellent speakers and writers.  It’s not a curriculum either (although they do produce an excellent writing program).  But it is a path in that CIRCE points to a direction that they believe we should be heading; a Classical direction whose primary goal is wisdom and virtue (which differs from the standard ‘line up all your duck in a row ready for university entrance’ goal).  So that’s primarily the crux of CIRCE – they are reviving Classical Education and giving teachers and homeschoolers the tools they need to join the revival.  (CIRCE’s Classical Education differs from neo-classical education, which is the umbrella the Well Trained Mind falls under; neo-classicals aim to revive academic standards.  I need to distinguish between the two as it confuses people to think about Classical Education, when the only example they have of it is the WTM).

How then do I use CIRCE to teach?  CIRCE does not offer a curriculum, or step by step approach.  Instead they offer Classical methodology, specifically mimetic teaching and Socratic discussion.  Mimetic teaching is a form of imitation. Students are invited to ‘gaze on’ a model of an idea that you wish to teach.  For example, if I wanted to teach my students about honour and leadership (this is a lesson I have taught), I would offer a story or event that showed this idea (we read the story of Shackleton and the Endurance).  That would be my model.  As we read the story, I would use Socratic questions to draw the student’s attention towards the truth about honourable leadership in the story.  (Socratic questions are essentially questions that lead the student towards truth while at the same time destroying any false ideas they may have.)    In this way, the student would learn about virtues but they would also learn about people and events.  In the Shackleton example, they would also use three of the seven liberal arts (which are grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).  As they read the story of Shackleton, draw out honour and leadership ideas from the story, write about the idea and apply it, they would be using grammar, logic and rhetoric skills.  So the liberal arts are the intellectual skills that are used while ‘gazing on’ the ideas of truth, beauty and goodness, while in the search of wisdom and virtue.  (CIRCE doesn’t consider the liberal arts as stages like the WTM does).  This is basically my interpretation of the ‘how’ of CIRCE and Classical Education.

Does it have a bit more of a road map?  Well, not really.  It’s like CIRCE is saying, “You should visit Rome”.  How you get there is irrelevant.  The details don’t matter.  As long as you end up in Rome.  So, with my example of honour and leadership, the model we used is irrelevant.  I could have used any number of worthy people.  (CIRCE isn’t in the habit of laying out a specific ‘road to Rome’). Instead, it’s up to us to determine what story or painting or experience or event would best speak to our children as they gaze upon it and are helped to extract the truth we want them to take away from it.  And, of course, you don’t just present one example to gaze upon.  Over time, the students will be exposed to numerous models.

One criticism of this approach is that we are trying to create godly virtues without God.  But that is not so.  What CIRCE describes is an ‘ordering of affections’.  It’s teaching the children what is good and what is not, what is true and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not.  Essentially, what is God like and what is He not.  However, while on earth, with our flesh and minds, we can only experience shadows of what God is like (it’s an entirely different matter with our spirit).  So Classical Education trains our minds to dwell on the shadows of God – shadows of truth, shadows of beauty and shadows of goodness.  Looking in the right direction is the best that we can do in bringing our children to God and His ways.  It’s up to our children to reach out to the source, the author, of those shadows, and then He will show them real Truth, Beauty and Goodness (which of course is Himself).  That’s the hope of Classical Education as outlined by CIRCE.

So how do I plan for Classical Education?  In many ways, it’s pretty run of the mill but just with a different mindset.  I teach skills with a textbook or a curriculum.  The three R’s are necessary in order to access the true, good and beautiful things.  In content areas, I don’t usually start with a list of virtues I want to explore (maybe I should but I don’t; I haven’t got much experience under my belt yet so I wing a far bit of the journey).  Instead, I list the things we want to learn about – things we are currently interested in, making connections with, have a question about or should know something about.  From these concepts, people, events and places, there are numerous opportunities to see God’s shadow (truth, beauty and goodness).  For example, we’re currently focused on looking at Africa.  Last term, we chose to read about Albert Schweitzer, an unknown (to us) name that came up when I googled people linked with Africa.  When we started reading, this man’s life and work displayed so many virtues for us to gaze on.  Sometimes, like the time we read “Building a Fire”, we read about people who do not place their hope in God and who do not display truth, beauty or goodness.  In that case, the story isn’t offered as something to gaze on and turn towards.  It becomes more of a cautionary tale; as what life might look like without God in our lives.  (In order to use these kinds of models, the student must have experiences with many examples of truth, beauty and goodness, so they can quickly identify its absence.)  So, when planning, I plan in a fairly ordinary way, deciding on the content we want to study, not because I want my students to memorise and regurgitate it for an exam, but, because it may contain things of value to us – examples of truth, beauty and goodness.  Therefore, education is a bit like a sorting process for us.  We explore all manner of things and put them into categories – those things worthy of gazing upon and those things which are not.

Do I plan everything out in advance, or just wait to see where the wind and tides will take us? I’m a ‘wind and tides’ type of gal.  I have a loose plan of where we might dig, while looking for gold, but if something else comes along, I’m happy to pick up our shovels and go and investigate.  Often we have several gold mines open at once.  Imagine us picking up rocks and checking them over to see if we have a piece of black coal or a sparkling treasure (a nugget of truth, beauty or goodness).  We pocket the treasures and, after inspecting the coal, toss it back.  (Perhaps we wouldn’t be exposed to as much coal if I was more experienced with Classical Education.)  When those gold mines are completed, we head back to where we left off and continue on, until another glimmer takes us off on a tangent.  So planning on paper is fairly easy.  I merely set out in what direction we might head: a list of things that interest us or that we should explore.  To that, I add a list of good books worthy of our time.  I might also add documentaries, excursions and activities that might help us dig deeper.  I don’t dwell on specifics and they usually take care of themselves.  For us, the topic we are studying is what usually indicates what we should do with the learning.  For example, when we were learning about the Periodic Table, one of my boys decided that he was going to make one for the wall because we’d been frustrated by not being able to see what was being described in the book we were reading.  Often times, we write in response to what we have learned.  This past week, my boys wrote an essay about whether two characters in a book we read, (Tank Boys) should have disguised a German soldier and smuggled him into the Australia army.  Given our truth, beauty and goodness mindset, one of their final argument was: “In God’s eyes, all men were created equal and these Australian soldiers made the decision to love this German as themselves.”  Did they learn about the content that I wanted them to learn in the book?  Yes.  But, at the same time, they learned about something of infinitely more value.

Do I still read everything aloud to my boys?  I do because I see great value in reading aloud.  As I read aloud to both boys, we are able to engage in dialogue, which leads to greater learning.  Questions are asked, lines of thought are explored, and I can Socratically engage them in pulling out and forming ideas.  I can’t imagine how this process can happen if I send my boys away to their rooms to read by themselves.  I don’t feel like there is anyone to guide and mentor them when they sit in isolation.  Even in the classroom there is a guide, someone to lead them out of immaturity.  So, I see that as my role.  I’m not just the person who determines the path and resources they will use, I’m also the person who will walk the path with them as a mentor in the process.   As an ex-classroom teacher, I also always check back to see why certain teaching patterns began – why is independent work so highly valued in the classroom.  In my experience, independent workers were valued because they didn’t draw on my time.  I could set them a task and then get on with teaching those who needed my direct instruction.  In a classroom, or a bigger group of children, this is a necessity.  There’s nothing wrong with it but I think we have set it up as the ideal for all situations.  As a student in highschool, I remember working independently in several classes.   I completed work quickly and so the teacher told me to work ahead.  I remember it as a rather lonely experience and sometimes a difficult one.  I had to figure out new concepts without the experience and direction of a more learned person.  I could ask the teacher but she was busy with those who needed her more and so I would only ever get a quick explanation.  So, based on my homeschooling experience, my experience as a student and school teacher, sending my children off to complete their day’s work alone isn’t something that I see as valuable or necessary (given that I only have the two students).  Of course, there are exercises that each child is expected to do alone.  I’ll set tasks and expect each child to work on them but I’m always available to help.  So, during school hours, I’m not off cleaning the house or anything.

Packaged curriculum, with all their well laid plans, are a huge temptation, aren’t they.  :) And there’s nothing wrong with them, if they fit your goal.  I often have new homeschoolers come over for a cuppa and a chat and the first thing I ask them is how they imagine homeschooling to look in their home.  Some people are totally honest and say they just want something they can open and do without any fuss.  It may be because they feel insecure or they have limited time because they have to work outside the home or have a large family.  At that point in their life, simplicity and ease is their primary goal and distance ed or packaged curriculums tick both of those boxes for them.  Others imagine different scenarios and may need different resources to fit their needs.  Think of curriculum like traveling the world.  Some people want a travel agent to plan their trip and tell them where to go and what to see with all the details organised for them.  Others thrive on making their own plans, going places others might not go, and leaving things a little open ended so they can embrace unexpected opportunities.  And still others daydream about having a travel agent make their plans, but where they plan to go and how they plan to travel might not be something that travel agents can do for them.  I find myself in this latter category and, while I am tempted by all the glittering curriculums, after dabbling in many of them over the years, I have learned that they won’t take me where I want to go, and they always leave me feeling disappointed.

I think the most important thing to do at the start of the homeschooling journey is to figure out where you want to take your children, where you ‘truly’ want them to end up.  It is a journey after all, and people who journey need to know where they are headed.  In my early homeschooling years, I never really stopped to think about where I wanted education to take us.  I immediately jumped into researching methodologies and curriculum.  I never stopped to think about where we were heading and whether that’s where I wanted to go.  School and society taught me their purpose for education and I just followed along, aiming to fill the kids’ heads with facts to get them into university or jobs.   I didn’t even know there was something more we could aim for.  CIRCE were the people who introduced me to the stars, I suppose you could say.  People accuse Classical Educators of being idealists, wasting their time on stars when their feet should be firmly planted on the ground doing earthly things (like worrying about uni and jobs).  But, Classical Education reminds me of the story of Peter walking on water.  Jesus told Peter to keep his eyes on Him so he could rise above the stormy waters.  My goal is to train my children’s eyes towards Jesus so they can do more than just earthly things.  Lofty?  Sure.  But that’s what goals are supposed to be.  And if our children can ‘walk on water’ so to speak, I feel confident that those all-important university placements and jobs will be thrown in for free.  :)

So that’s my attempt at explaining Classical Education as inspired by the wonderful people at CIRCE.   :)


Do I Need to Be ‘Smart’ to Homeschool?

A number of times, parents, who are thinking about homeschooling, have asked me, “Do you need to be ‘smart’ to homeschool?”.   Or they’ll express concern that they feel like they aren’t smart enough to homeschool their children, particularly during the highschool years.   How do I respond to this question or comment?  Well, I tell them the truth.  “No, you don’t need to be smart, but, you have to be willing to read and learn”.

People often reply, “Yeah, but you’re a qualified teacher” and I have to remind them that even teachers start out knowing very little about the topics they teach, particularly in the primary school years where teachers are expected to teach all different subjects and topics.  Every time a teacher is moved to a different grade level, they have to start fresh.  They have to look at the National Curriculum to determine what they have to teach.  They have to make choices about topics to teach and books to use.  Most teachers need to find information about the new topics they are teaching.  They have to refer to a book, website or mentor to find out how to teach new Math topics.  They have to research the History and Science they need to teach.  They aren’t taught all that content at university and they certainly don’t know everything.   Parents who are willing to put in the time and effort can do the same things.

For most things, we can learn right alongside our children.  To begin with, we don’t need to know anything about the topics we want to teach.  We just need to be prepared to roll up our sleeve and do a little research.  For example, if I wanted to teach about world explorers and didn’t know any world explorers, I would simply google “list of greatest world explorers”.  Then I would select some explorers to study.  You might need to do a little googling to help with your selection process.  Using my list of chosen explorers, I would then begin a search for resources.  I usually start online with my local library, typing in the explorers’ names and borrowing related books and dvds.  Then I use Google to help me hunt for ideas – book titles, dvd titles, online videos, activity ideas and good quality free resources.  The hardest part of this search is usually narrowing down the options.  Personally, I like to find one or two excellent books, at least one video and perhaps an activity.  Others might have different preferences.  Often I choose to purchase a book or dvd, when I find a title that looks amazing and that I can’t borrow.  But that’s also a personal choice.  With the explorers chosen and the resources collected, the next step is to decide how you want to teach it.  This looks different in different homes.  Some people like to pre-read or pre-view all of their resources and prepare questions and activities based on the information.  Others like to do a some preparations but nothing too detailed.  Personally, I like to select the most enticing book and dive right in with my children.  I suppose, instead of ‘teacher’, you could call me the ‘lead learner’.  There are often times when I know as little about a topic as my children when we first begin reading.  But, that’s okay.  I’m not attempting to impart knowledge from my head to theirs.  The resources I’ve chosen will provide the information, and often the activities and questions as well.  My role is to choose the paths, provide the resources, and join them on the learning journey.

As another example, I also teach my boys Latin, yet, I don’t know Latin.  However, I do know how to do a google search.  So, back when we were first starting, I researched all the different Latin options that homeschoolers seemed to use.  I selected one that appealed and ordered it.  When it arrived, I spent some time looking over the product and deciding how to proceed.  Since it was designed for beginning students, particularly children, I knew that I could understand the requirements enough to explain one lesson at a time.  I also discovered that there were some lessons that required a little thought and I simply couldn’t come to the lesson without first reading through the lesson.  So, I decided to stay at least one lesson ahead of my students.  As the years have progressed, the requirements are still the same.  I still only need to know one lesson more than my boys.  Admittedly, once or twice I’ve had to look up terms that the text assumed I’d understand, but, with a little time and effort, those obstacles were quickly overcome.  If you are prepared to do the same, you can teach many things.  Just as importantly, you’ll learning many new things.  I’ve learned so much on this homeschooling journey.  Things school never taught me.

Of course, you don’t have to teach everything yourself.  You could employ someone to teach a subject that is outside your skill area.  Most people do this for Music.  Some parents make arrangements with other parents to share their talents.  If one mother is skilled in Language and another in Math, they might arrange to teach each others’ children.  There are also online classes and video based curriculums that do the teaching for you.  Perhaps hubby or another family member could help teach a subject.  Plus, homeschool curriculums are designed with the knowledge that most parents aren’t qualified teachers.  Oh and a worked-solution book for your Math text can often save the day.  So there is a lot of support available and even more if you are prepared to be flexible and creative.  Teaching doesn’t have to fall solely on your shoulders.

Being ‘smart’ or ‘qualified’ might make some things easier and give you more confidence to quickly jump into the process, but, even for these people, teaching requires time and effort, and most importantly, a willingness to learn new things.  We all have these things to offer, if we are willing to spend them in pursuit of the homeschool journey.

And, as many homeschoolers will tell you, while you don’t need to be smart to start, you will definitely be smarter when you end.



How Best to Start Homeschooling

A response to a new homeschooler looking for advice on how best to start homeschooling:

I think the very first thing we need to do when we start homeschooling is to ask ourselves why we are homeschooling. It seems like a silly place to start but I’ve learned that this question is foundational. If we don’t have a rock solid reason, we tend to easily fall prey to uncertainty, naysayers, and worse still, bouncing between school and homeschool.   For myself, we originally chose homeschooling because, as teachers, we knew firsthand that the academic standards in schools were poor and that the social situations were abominable. Plus we didn’t want to give our precious children over to strangers for most of their young life.   Based on this, we closed the door on school enrolment. To put our children into school now, we would be willfully deciding to send them away, into a place that we knew was academically and socially inferior. Knowing our reasons for homeschooling, really helps us in those moments when we are panicked over whether we were doing the right thing or not. Over the years our reasons for homeschooling have changed – we have learned what wonderful places homes can be for educating children – so now there are even more reasons why our way forward is homeschooling.

The next decision that needs to be made is whether you will enrol your children in a Distance Education school or register with your state government. Where I live, in QLD, there are quite a few Distance Education options and they are very popular amongst new homeschoolers, who feel overwhelmed by taking on the full responsibility of their children’s education. Distance Education schools do provide a lot of support – determining what you teach, when and with what resources – but, as with any school, you will have to forgo a lot of freedom and choice. The other option is to retain full responsibility and register your intention to homeschool with your state authority. Each state has various requirements so you’ll have to make yourself familiar with these. I always recommend that people read them for themselves, rather than rely on others’ summaries, as it’s vital to properly understand your homeschooling rights and responsibilities.

Once you’ve made the decision to register as a homeschooler, imagine what you want your homeschool to look like. Brainstorm your ideal learning situations. Ignore practicalities for the moment and just dream, as often these imaginings get to the heart of what you believe and desire for your children. This also helps you to start breaking loose from school notions. Too often we copy ideas about education from the only example we know – school – the institution we are abandoning because it doesn’t nourish our children. So ask yourself lots of questions and jot down your thoughts. What are your aspirations for your children? What are your children’s aspirations for themselves? What do you want your children to know? What do they want to know? What do they need to learn? How do you think children learn best? (Ignore the ‘experts’, they aren’t doing too well with the millions of children they already have in their care). Do you want to use textbooks in your homeschool? Or would you rather explore other options, like reading ‘real’ books, watching videos, participating in real life activities and hands on projects? Or would you feel more comfortable with a mixture of these? What are your children’s interests and strengths? Where do your children need more support? What do you imagine your role is in your homeschooling? What subjects would you like to teach? What subjects does the government say you must teach? Do you want to teach subject by subject or would you rather a more holistic approach? Start with you own ideals, rather than what you think education ‘must’ be. Yes, you can learn from others, but don’t copy them. Start where you are comfortable and grow from there. Adjust according to your children’s responses. They are the best indicators of whether you are on the right track.

Don’t focus on materials and your schoolroom when you are starting out. Just about everyone makes this mistake. No, it’s not a fatal mistake, thankfully, but it is a distraction. We don’t need a pretty schoolroom, chock full of school-like materials. Your money and time are better spent elsewhere. If you really want to buy something for your homeschool, start by buying bookshelves and then filling them with books that the kids want to read.  Then take them to the library to sign up for library cards, and fill up the rest of your shelves with free books. Yes, you might want a few textbooks and curriculums to get started with, but don’t throw too much money at them straight away. Get to know your learners first so you can better match the resources to them. New homeschoolers tend to waste a lot of money in their first year, buying things they’ll hardly use and will later regret.

As homeschoolers, you need a homeschool community of like-minded people, who you can share with, so make sure to work on making these connections for yourself and your children. It’s not an easy process and it won’t happen overnight. Be patient. You won’t necessarily find like-minded homeschoolers in every suburb; you might not even find them on your side of town, so think more broadly and be prepared to travel to meet people. (Also remember that friends for your children don’t need to be the same age and gender as your children). Be courageous and invite people over for a cup of tea or arrange a park play. It’s not a comfortable process – we’ve all had the experience of walking through the park asking strangers if they are the homeschooling group we’ve come to meet – but it’s worth the effort. On this homeschooling journey, you need fellow travelers to support you.

In the same breath, I would advise that you stay home a lot and don’t overfill your weeks with outside-the-home activities. Your first instinct as a new homeschooler, particularly if you’ve just withdrawn your children from school, will be to join co-ops and classes. There is nothing wrong with these activities at all, provided you are enrolling for the right reasons. Too often new homeschoolers enrol in everything on offer because they feel like their children are somehow ‘missing out’ by not attending school. In the early years, I fell into this over-compensating trap, and attended nearly every homeschooling event on offer from one side of the city to the other. All I achieved was an empty pocket and fuel tank, tired children who had little time for their real interests, and a grumpy mum who knew how little real learning had happened during the week. But on the surface, it looked like we were doing a lot, (and we were!) but it added very little of real value to our lives. Nowadays, we only participate in activities that we really want to do, and even then we are very selective and limit the number of outings in our week. Yes, at first, it feels really hard to stay home, day in and out. Our society encourages us to run around like a hamster on their wheel and we start this training as soon as children enter school (and nowadays even earlier with children in child care). So, when we bring our children home, both parent and child have to learn how to be comfortable and fulfilled at home. And the only way to do this is to spend some time at home growing to love it…and you will one day. It just takes time and practise.

The one thing I wished I’d known, at the beginning of our homeschooling journey, is the immense value of reading aloud. I’ve always known it was important, but I didn’t realise how vital it was. Nowadays we read aloud for a lot (my hubby is reading aloud to my boys as I type this) but I know that I’ve wasted many of our earlier read aloud opportunities and my heart breaks over it. If I could encourage you to do only one thing in your homeschooling journey, it would be to read aloud to your children as much as possible and for as many years as possible. Reading aloud isn’t just for our toddlers and preschoolers; it’s for all ages. Sadly, our school aged children (particularly if they’ve been to school) may reject our attempts to read to them, because they’ve been led to believe that reading aloud is just for babies. But if we can get to them early and help them fall in love with being read to, we may be able to turn around this mistaken notion. As you enter this world of homeschooling, I can tell you now that your world is about to be filled by books and it’s a wonderful thing.

And, finally, I would encourage you to become an active learner alongside your children. Don’t just prop the kids up in front of textbooks or worksheets and only return with your red pen to mark their work. That’s ‘playing teacher’ and not homeschooling. If you want your children to wholeheartedly embrace learning, then you have to embrace it first. Rather than standing on the sidelines and giving instructions, jump in with them and model how to learn. That’s the best way to homeschool.

Good luck on your homeschooling journey. It’s worth the effort. 🙂


Transitioning From School to Homeschool

Removing children from regular school and homeschooling can be a tough road.  It can depend on whether the children are keen to homeschool or whether it’s all mum and dad’s idea.  Even the children who are on board with the change can struggle with it at times.  It’s a big shift for everyone and I think it’s important to realise that there will be some uphill stretches.  When you encounter a rough patch, it doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision or that you are doing anything wrong.  It’s just part and parcel of the change.  Perhaps the best thing to do to help with the transition is to expect to deal with emotional upheavals here and there.  You’ll hear all sorts of complaints:
“My teacher never did it this way”
“I’m bored”
“I miss my friends”

Homeschooling is going to be so different for them and it’s going to take time for them to adjust.  It’s perfectly normal.  So be ready to forgive yourself plenty of times and spread the grace to the kids when they act out too.
While you are finding your groove, you could keep a few distractions up your sleeve for difficult periods.
*Have some excursion ideas the kids might like, to get you out of the house a bit during the early weeks and months.
*Make sure to have plenty of social opportunities.  School children who are now homeschooling feel the loss of all the people around them during the day pretty acutely.
*Plan some activities they particularly enjoy – art, science, reading…whatever it happens to be.
*Little things like new art supplies, notebooks or a spiffy pen can even be a pleasant distraction for the day.
*Maybe a reward for the end of the school day
Whatever appeals to your children and releases a little tension and keeps you moving forward.
You could also include your children in some of the decision making and planning.  Ask them if there’s something they’d like to study.  Allow them to choose the order of things to study.  Offer some choices of curriculum that you are tossing up between and allow them choose.  Let them be involved and allow them to have some ownership of the new journey.
Sometimes you might just need to take the day off and go to the park or the shops or whatever recharges your batteries.  Obviously school work still has to get done but a day here and isn’t a big drama. Your emotional health is just as important as academics.
Also make sure you find some local homeschooling contacts.  A support system and homeschooling friends are really important for mum and the kids.  Just having people to chat and vent with is sometimes all the boost you need to get you through another week.  Plus they can remind you that those bad days are as normal as the good days.
Don’t let me paint too gloomy a picture for you though.  Homeschooling is the best thing since sliced bread.  Of course I could be biased.  🙂  However, I just think it’s important to be realistic and prepared.  When homeschoolers make everything out to be just peachy and ideal, it makes newcomers, who experience a normal bad homeschooling day, feel so dejected.  But if you are prepared for the bumps in the road, then I think you’ll be more easily about to spot the days when your cruising and hitting the highs.  Make sure to notice and appreciate those moments and days.  They are the real gems that will keep you moving forward on this new and wonderful journey.

Remember – All the best things are worth working for and none of them come without trials and hiccups.